by Randall Auxier
You suffered though algebra, especially those awful simultaneous equations in high school— if a train leaves from Boston and another from Chicago . . . and so on— but you might never have seen them as a sort of story, at bottom. The examples in the textbooks don’t make for very interesting stories. After all, the juicy details were stripped away to reveal some of the patterns of order present in all such “stories.” If Kanye West is on the Boston train and Taylor Swift is on the Chicago train, and I ask you “what time he interrupts her?” it might make the story a little more interesting, but it doesn’t really change the math, you know? But the real problem is that it isn’t your story, especially if you’re a kid. So why should you care?
But what if I ask you: “Why is there a solution?” You might say, “Well, because the trains do meet, at some point.” Now I ask: “Would it be the same for any trains coming toward each other?” You become annoyed. “Duh.” “What about other objects?” I press. “What about airplanes, asteroids, and crawdads and crawling babies?” “Sure, anything that moves from one place to another.” And now I have you. “Then algebra is everywhere?”
Yes, it’s everywhere. All narratives, all stories, all motions, in fact, all changes, can be described with mathematics, because all time-processes have that kind of order. In fact, your ability to understand a story, to follow it, including this one, depends on this kind of order. Remember that for a few minutes.
Late in 1964, Bob Moses resigned his leadership role in the Coalition of Federated Organizations— a group that coordinated the alphabet soup of civil-rights organizations: SCLC, SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and numerous others. He resigned because his role had become “too strong, too central, so that people who did not need to began to lean on me, to use me as a crutch,” as he told Clayborne Carson. He also had been through a disillusioning struggle following Freedom Summer.
As President Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, Moses was one of the first to oppose it publicly, in keeping with his pacifism and everything else he ever stood for. The political fallout for SNCC and the other civil-rights organizations he served was, well, let’s just say they didn’t want to debate the morality of war at that point in history. They still weren’t ready to talk about it when MLK delivered his “Christmas Sermon on Peace” over two years later –and some people would say this was the speech that got him killed. Any civil rights leader who associated the subjects of peace and civil rights was pulled down. It was a bad run for the USA, and for the most deeply held ideals of the most morally advanced among our citizenry. Those are the people who carry our unspoken hopes until we can bear their voices no more and we banish them to the oblivion of cultural dementia or of National Holidays, which comes to the same thing, does it not?
Moses was by this time an important public figure and easy to recognize; his highly visible role at the Democratic National Convention had put him in every living room. So he took off his overalls and went by “Robert Parris,” using his middle name, for a time, to give everyone involved some space. Thus altered, he pressed forward against the war. But in 1965, the voice of sanity had come too early. And somehow, although he was thirty-one years old and married, Moses was drafted into the military— and anyone who thinks that was a matter of chance needs a lesson in math. Moses went to Canada, but he also visited Africa that year. He came to be persuaded that black people needed to solve their own problems. As the assassinations of 1968 unfolded, even though he was ensconced in Canada, Moses had strong reasons to believe there was a target painted on his back. Those were bad days for people who defied the likes of Hoover and/or the Skull and Bones oligarchy.
So Moses broke all ties with everyone he knew moved with his wife Janet to Tanzania, without telling a soul where he had gone or why. Although this was a source of worry and consternation to those who knew and loved him, the move enabled also Moses to contribute to solving the black problems of post-colonial recovery with black people. Between 1969 and 1976, Moses taught math in his new home, serving most of that time in the Tanzanian Ministry of Education. He and Janet started a family there, and that would prove to be an important decision for the history of education in the United States –and beyond.
Jimmy Carter extended amnesty to Vietnam-era draft resistors in January 1977 and Moses could home, if he chose to. He had come to recognize that the struggle for civil rights in the US was part of the break-down of the European colonial world and that Americans of African descent were a colonized people in diaspora. Struggling against colonial oppression back home was thus not morally different from his work in Tanzania. He was also considering finishing his doctorate. Moses returned to the United States with his family, took up residence near Harvard and resumed his academic work.
Before he was finished, however, the MacArthur Foundation tapped Moses with a genius grant, that most elusive and prized of intellectual acknowledgements for work well done. You can’t apply for it; the Foundation finds you (well, probably not you, and not me, but deserving geniuses). The MacArthurs provide four years and a bunch of money (into the millions) to do whatever you want to do, no strings attached. Moses had noticed that even in Cambridge, the very seat of learning in America, school children, including his own, were getting inferior math education. In his many years as a math teacher, Moses had made a connection that few people recognized: People who aren’t in command of numbers aren’t really in command of their own lives. He had also come to the conviction in Tanzania that education is a civil right, not just a privilege or a social service.
Moses used the genius grant to launch The Algebra Project— and that is when the train really left Boston. Its path to Chicago still involved many variables, but it arrived there in 1991; it has also arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, and New York and New Orleans, and Los Angeles and San Francisco and perhaps most interestingly, Baltimore— and even Eldorado in Southern Illinois among other rural and impoverished destinations that, shall we say, haven’t seen any train except Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train in many decades, and for some, even that train don’t run any more. This vision might be the most far-reaching use ever made of a genius grant.
Moses’s idea is this: What would happen if communities became decisively aware that the education their children were receiving, especially in math, was inferior? What if people understood the withholding of numerical knowledge as analogous with disenfranchising the vote? If numeracy was presented to them as a civil right, like voting, would the people demand something different, something better, as their right? In much the way that black people in Mississippi had been told for a hundred years they were second class, that they deserved their lower economic and political standing, that they were unfit for anything higher or better, African American and other poor populations of this country, both rural and urban, had been told they couldn’t learn math and warranted no better education than they received. Just as Moses showed up in Mississippi in 1960 with a registration pad and a plan, here he was twenty-five years later, wielding a new plan and a new idea in civil rights.
And Moses does know something, after all, about organizing people whose lives have been pilfered by the powers and the privileged. Following Ella Baker, as he still does, Moses believes that reform in anything, including math education, doesn’t come from the privileged talking heads, or school boards, or state education commissions, or from the U.S. Department of Education deciding to do things one way rather than another, scrapping the latest greatest big theory, scrapping with each other politically, while local schools are scrounging for tax support. Meaningful change happens through organizing the people whose quality of life depends on learning what they actually need to know.
Thus, The Algebra Project aims at the most disadvantaged children of all, whether urban or rural, beginning with grassroots organizing. Only when people take charge of their own communities, and along with them their schools, will things begin to improve in sustainable ways. And indeed, it is still the young people who must lead, Moses believes, because those are the people with the ideas, with the needs, with the greatest stake, and they are the ones who haven’t yet been convinced that nothing can be done.
This is the approach that worked for SNCC and other organizations that followed Ella Baker’s vision during the civil-rights era. The Algebra Project is labor-intensive to implement, since it is no mere curriculum but a community-wide effort. But then again, it wasn’t exactly easy to turn voting rights around in Mississippi, either. The Algebra Project and its affiliate programs have shown excellent results during thirty years of experimentation, growth, and expansion across the country. This is the mathematics of liberation, of community empowerment. The more closely a community has followed Moses’ full-on plan, the better the results.
It goes without saying that the good jobs, the high-status positions in a technological society, go to those who command numbers. The key to changing math-phobia and decades of lies about the mathematical ability of the people at the economic bottom lies first with them, and then with community leaders who can respond with listening ears and open minds. We have not learned to associate mathematical competency with our basic dignity, but that observation begs the question “why not?” We easily understand how literacy has been associated with something quite profound in our psychology, but the analogy to numeracy has evaded us. It is in fact more than an analogy. Numeracy is the very same thing as literacy, but our nation has developed a set of discursive practices surrounding numbers that mystify them and render us effectively superstitious about them. But the truth: anyone who can learn to read can learn math. And that is pretty much everyone.
Why, then, would we tell generation after generation of young people the opposite, especially the underclass? Is it really just an unfortunate habit that arose from the accidents of history? Or is someone’s bread being buttered with this effects of this lie? One does not need a conspiracy theory. Affluent and comfortable and powerful (especially white) people do not tell their children “you don’t need math” and “some people just aren’t good at math” and “you’ll never use this stuff” and . . . I think you know the litany of falsehoods. Maybe the people with the power know something here but don’t especially care whether anyone else knows it? It is convenient when the reckoning of accounts is being done to have a clever fellow on your own side with an excellent command of the needed math, isn’t it? And after all, he wouldn’t lie . . . right? I mean “the numbers don’t lie,” I have heard powerful people saying. Perhaps they don’t, but on the other hand, “all the economists laid end to end wouldn’t reach a conclusion.” I’ve heard that too.
In the end, fixing the problem is a “Young People’s Project,” just as SNCC was, and, as Moses said in a recent lecture, “it took me quite a while to understand that becoming a runaway slave was a young people’s project.” In organizing this movement, Moses points out that the older people must be aware that they are launching a movement that they will in no way lead. Moses’s son Omo and his daughter Maisha have been active with The Algebra Project from the beginning, especially in what is called the Young People’s Project, which is to The Algebra Project what SNCC was to the civil-rights movement: It’s the toughest kind of grassroots, pavement-pounding, door-knocking, afterschool bad-neighborhood organizing you can imagine. Maisha and Omo turned out to be a lot like their father: very difficult-to-discourage brave souls, and committed servants of hungry communities.
But Omo and Maisha did their service and came into full adulthood with the understanding that a time comes for them also to move to the side to make way for other people who are younger. Each generation has to take ownership, to decide what its own project will be. That work continues and it grows. But it isn’t easy. Nothing worth doing ever is.